The Wooden Synagogues of Central and Eastern Europe
The surviving wooden synagogues of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth are now all that remains of a completely unique piece of European architectural history. Belonging entirely in conception, style and decoration to the Jewish Communities that built them, these extraordinary buildings are therefore singularly significant as remnants of a lost architectural typology and as the only surviving representatives of a built heritage that was once common across Eastern Europe.
As such, one would expect their continued conservation and preservation to be a paramount concern – and so it has been. There are now several superb books on the subject and a number of Jewish and non-Jewish organisations, regional, national and international, have, in recent years, highlighted the plight of these quite ordinary-looking buildings to the world. Despite this, their rural locations, the dispersal of communities to tend for them and a lack of co-ordinated European effort, have conspired to bring them to the edge of extinction as built heritage. Increasingly, however, the academic work that has been done has continued to further our understanding and appreciation of these buildings, resulting in a number of large scale reconstructions, models and replications of the decorative finishes of the interiors.
This itinerary, therefore, has a dual purpose, to provide an overview of the architectural history of these extraordinary buildings and provide a comprehensive list of the places where the surviving structures and the replicas may be seen and enjoyed. It is also an underlying call to action regarding the conservation of the remaining buildings. Notes on the current conservation status, contact details for those who are engaged in campaigning and preservation have also, therefore, been included.
These buildings are all that remains of a singularly Jewish building type. If we do not act swiftly, they may disappear forever, severing a link that stretches back centuries. The AEPJ is committed to working with its Eastern European partners to help save these buildings – please contact us for more information and how to help.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was established in 1569 with the union of the Polish Kingdom and the Great Duchy of Lithuania and was one of the largest and most populous territories in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The establishment of Jewish communities within the Commonwealth’s borders occurred at different times throughout its history but it is probable that Jews first settled in Lithuania in the 14th century. At one time the Commonwealth was home to almost one-half of all European Jews, with the Jewish population growing rapidly between the late 16th century and the mid-17th century. Many Jews emigrated from Bohemia and Germany, attracted by the government’s reasonable attitude to religious liberty and the opportunity to participate in the growing urban economy. This period came to be known in Poland as the “Golden Age of Jewry” but came to an abrupt end with the wars of 1648-57 that devastated Poland’s economic fortunes. As the Ukraine increasing fought for independence from Poland following the Khmelnitsky Uprising and other nations took advantage of the Commonwealth’s weakened state, Poland’s economic might waned. Although the Commonwealth survived these trials, it was economically damaged and as a result, religious tolerance declined Jewish communities became increasingly at risk. During this time, it is estimated that hundreds of Wooden synagogues were lost, destroyed by the Cossack hordes under the control of Chmielnicki. When these pogroms were over, rebuilding commenced, resulting in a number of superb architectural masterpieces that survived until the interwar period. The fine synagogues at Wolpa, Narowla and Jurborg are among them but after the Second World War, none of these extraordinary, elaborate buildings remained. All were destroyed by the Nazis.
The Wooden Synagogues - A uniquely Jewish typology
Wooden synagogues first appeared in the mid-17th century and the number constructed grew exponentially with the growth in population and urban Jewish communities. Wood was the material of choice for both practical and creative reasons. It was in abundance and therefore low cost. Moreover in what are termed the Commonwealth’s Renaissance (1550-1650) and Baroque (1650-1780) periods other religious buildings such as churches, and secular residential and civic buildings were constructed out of wood. The material chosen for synagogue construction was therefore conforming, on the exterior at least, to regional and local architectural conventions. However where the exterior of these buildings also emulated the volume and structural elements of civic buildings and private mansions, and had no external Judaic decoration, the interiors differed greatly.
Particularly innovative and unique to wooden synagogues was the suspension of vaulting and domes from elaborate roof trusses and so making these features ‘blind’ when attempting to read the structure of the building from the exterior. The use of vaulting gave the feeling of loftiness through the clever use of the roof space and so avoided the necessity to build a high building to bring about this effect and one that in many areas would likely have been prohibited.
Research suggests that it was often the case that these were buildings imagined, designed and created by prosperous communities, with the skill sand handicrafts associated with their construction passed down through generations.
These buildings embodied a multiplicity of meanings derived from both the religious and secular. They internalised and combined the various social, cultural and political influences particular to the region and time in which they were constructed. Central to the design and layout of the synagogues was the adherence to Judaic tradition and Talmudic requirements. The interiors of the Renaissance and the Baroque synagogues were generally richly decorated with Jewish and sometimes non-Jewish artists drawing their inspiration from biblical stories, medieval Jewish imagery and indigenous folklore. There was a variety of ornamentation, including painting of animals both real and mythological, among them lions, griffins, birds and unicorns, all interwoven in continuous stylised ribbons of foliage. The dominant colours were strong reds, greens and blues, with black used for the inscriptions. The paintings spread across the ceilings and the walls and wherever they could be fitted in in a kind of horror vaccui form of decorative ensemble, with all available wall spaces being inscribed and decorated. The interiors were completely unique flowerings of a Jewish decorative folk tradition that expressed itself through highly skilled architecture, craftsmanship and art.
The remaining examples
The wooden synagogues prevalent across the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th and 17th Centuries, which were subsequently lost and rebuilt, all served as examples of Jewish sacred art and architecture of the highest quality. These buildings are now lost to us and survive in a handful of paintings, photographs and documentary evidence gathered in the early 20th Century.
The extant wooden synagogues, despite their rather utilitarian appearance are the sole built inheritors of an extraordinary and vital architectural legacy and in many cases, their survival is not in spite of this perceived ‘ordinariness’, but rather, because of it. By appearing as agricultural or domestic buildings, these synagogues escaped the fate of the larger, finer examples. Bearing the weight not just of their roofs, but of centuries of architectural refinement and development, these unassuming structures are hugely significant pieces of Jewish built heritage, as indicative as many finer, loftier buildings to the contributions made by Jews to the wider architectural history of the continent.
The extant examples are in the main located in Lithuania with examples dating from the early 19th century and as recent as the late 1930s. Outside of the Commonwealth and in Romania, there is only one extant wooden synagogue, parts of which date to mid-18th century.
The extant buildings in Lithuania evidence a variety of stylistic elements from the Classical period (1780-1830) of which noticeable traits are, amongst others, rectangular openings, lower roofs and horizontal divisions on the facades, to the Romantic period (1831-1860) where the difference between the ground and first floor space was made distinct on the exterior by the fenestration.
With the exception of the Trakai Kenassa, the extant synagogues of Latvia and Lithuania are modest structures that replicate traditional buildings of their respective localities. The synagogues of Lithuania, which were generally built in the vernacular style, maintained a more discreet presence in their surroundings and maybe it is because of this styling, often akin to a farm building or a house ensured their survival.
The oldest extant wooden synagogue is the Pakruojis synagogue that dates to 1801. It is one of only approximately 14 remaining wooden synagogues associated with Lithuania’s Jewish community of the 19th and 20th centuries.
With the exception of the Kenassa in Trakai, all of the extant buildings are in the vernacular style and visually represent agricultural or residential building types. They are in parts reflective of a variety of styles including the Classical (1780-1830) at Pakruojis, and the Romantic (1831-1860) at Alanta and Žeižmariai. Both synagogues are built in the Romantic style (1831-1860) although representing two different types, of simple and complex volume. They follow the style’s simple and functional form and rectangular plan. The men’s prayer hall was located on the east side and the porch for men and the staircase to the women’s section located on the west side.
They are generally constructed of log timber set on a rough-stone or masonry foundation and are weather-boarded to protect them from the elements. The majority are of square or rectangular plan and have a double-height prayer hall on the east side and a first floor women’s section of the west side. Due to the advanced deterioration of all of these buildings, much of the internal decoration and fixtures and fittings have disappeared. There is no evidence, with the exception of Pakruojis, of rich interior decoration suggesting that these buildings were originally envisaged as having modest decoration.
The documentary evidence notes a Jewish presence in Romania (here encompassing the regions and former principalities of Walachia, Transylvania and Moldavia) from the 14th century onwards, although there is some mention of Jews carrying out trade and other activities from the 9th century. From the early 17th century the rulers of the principalities had a tradition of calling in Jews from other territories to stimulate the economy and urban growth. This had the resultant effect of significantly increasing the Jewish population of these areas in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The increase in population continued uninterrupted until the early 20th century when the Jewish population in the interwar period numbered approximately half a million. As with other countries in the region, the events of the Second World War and mass emigration in the post-war decades led to a significant decline in numbers with a reduction to almost 10,000 in the late 20th century.
As with the synagogues of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and present-day Poland in particular, Romanian synagogues demonstrated a high degree of expertise and skill in their execution. The materials, techniques and ideas were influenced both by Talmudic requirements but also by the styles and cultural norms of the region with the extant examples of demonstrative importance in the panoply of the country’s built heritage both religious and secular.
Until the mid-17th century and in some cases later, synagogues were made of timber either for economic reasons or legislator or customary restrictions with a ban on construction using durable materials, and size and height restrictions.
The oldest recorded timber synagogue dates to 1747 and is located at Nazna, a rural commune in Transylvania.
In the absence of the majority of wooden synagogues, a number have been replicated in a variety of art forms. Ranging from drawings to physical small scale replicas, these attest to the growing interest and perceived importance of wooden synagogues.
The linocuts of Bill Farran are a particularly imaginative way of bringing the lost buildings to peoples’ attention.
A number of small scale replicas of wooden synagogues are to be found at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Paris in “The Traditional Ashkenazi World” section.
Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme
71, rue du Temple 75003
Phone : 01 53 01 86 60
Information : firstname.lastname@example.org
The Gwozdziec Synagogue Replication Project. Warsav (Poland)
The aim of the project is to build an 85% scale replica of the Gwozdziec Synagogue’s timber frame roof and the elaborately painted vaulted ceiling. The project is providing the opportunity for students from all disciplines, and craftsmen to work on the replica using only original techniques and tools. It is envisaged that the completed replica will be on permanent exhibition at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw where it will be a core exhibit.
The project was brought about by two non-Jewish, non-Polish artists, Rick and Laura Brown of Handshouse Studio, a Massachusets not-for-profit educational organisation that promotes hands-on innovative projects that promote history and science. They have also created a smaller 1:12 scale model of the Zabludow synagogue that currently resides in the United States.
Gwozdziec Synagogue (Source: Museum of the History of Polish Jews).
The first synagogue at Gwozdziec was likely to have been erected on the site in circa 1640. Its internal decoration was the work of Jewish artists engaged in figurative polychrome decoration, noticeable amongst which at the time were, Israel, son of Mordecai Lisnicki of Jaryczów and Izak Baer and his son. The former was working at the beginning of the 1650s on other wooden synagogues at Mogilev and Kopys (circa 1652 for these walls).
The synagogue was re-built sometime between 1700 and 1731. The synagogue was famous for its rich decoration with the prayer hall having an octagonal copula decorated with fabulous biblical paintings. The women’s section was situated on the north and south sides of the synagogue and on the gallery above the entrance hall.
From early images of the synagogue, it is possible to understand the sense of scale and its dominance over other buildings in its immediate vicinity. With its’ steeply pitched and almost pyramidal roof it presents an almost monumental vision in what was an otherwise vernacular townscape.Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw
Anielewicza 6, 00-157 Warsaw, Poland
(+48) 22 471 0300
The museum opened in April 2013 and is housed in a modern building on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto facing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument. Presently it hosts temporary exhibitions with the Core exhibit, central to which will be the synagogue replication, planned for unveiling at the Grand Opening scheduled for early 2014.
The Installation (Image: The Polish Synagogue website).
These images show the Bimah which was installed in August 2013.
The Bimah (Image: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2013).
The Bimah (Image: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2013).
Image: Taube Philanthropies, 2013.
www.polishsynagogue.com. Tells the story so far of the rebuilding of this 18th century wooden synagogue destroyed by the Nazis.
www.jewishmuseum.org.pl. Opened in April 2013
www.handshousestudio.org. Innovation in building in that the vaulting could not be distinguished from the exterior.
The History of the Study of Central and Eastern European Wooden Synagogues
In Poland where the destruction of wooden synagogues was so widespread during the Second World War that there is not one extant example, we are fortunate to have documentary evidence for these, in the form of reports and photographs made by architects and art-historians before 1939. This corpus of work provides the only link with this unique building type that dates back to the mid-17th century.
Following the war, this work was taken forward by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka who produced a highly influential and informative study on the wooden synagogue style entitled Wooden Synagogues, published in 1959.
Over the past 25 years, the survey and recording of extant synagogues both masonry and timber built has been undertaken in Romania, Lithuania and Latvia. Between 2007 -2011 the Center for Jewish Art (Jerusalem) conducted a survey of the synagogues of Lithuania. The survey results were published in 2012 in two comprehensive yet detailed volumes entitled Synagogues in Lithuania: A Catalogue. Also providing survey results and detailed analysis of Lithuanian synagogues is Dr Marija Rupeikiene’s A Disappearing Heritage: The Synagogue Architecture of Lithuania published in 2008.
The remaining wooden synagogues are in a very poor state of repair. The reasons for the neglect are manifold but a historic lack of appreciation, and the economics of conserving these buildings can be given as two of the main reasons that have contributed to their advanced deterioration and dilapidation. Many have suffered accidental, natural or deliberate harm in the years in which they have lain redundant.
In the past five years, two synagogues that have been highlighted as being in immediate danger of collapse have done so with both the synagogues in Subate in Latvia and Seda in Lithuania finally succumbing to the effects of advanced deterioration.
Each, in their respective jurisdictions, face the universal problem of being in out of the way or difficult to get to locations. Generally located in small villages or towns where the Jewish community is very small or are no longer present, the majority of the extant buildings do not fulfil their original function or, due to their parlous state, do not have the ability to presently fulfil any alterative function. It is important to also note that this situation applies not only to wooden synagogues but also masonry and brick built synagogues.
Although awareness of the situation is growing, there is still a lack of support and funding which are contributing to the already advanced deterioration of the extant wooden synagogues. Where conservation of a building might be possible, there are also issues around appropriate adaptive re-use and the problem of not detracting from the buildings’ significance and integrity. Some buildings have been suggested as being re-used as libraries with the possibility of the municipalities leasing them but the poor state of repair impedes this in many cases.
That said, in recent years a number of individuals and organisations have worked on highlighting the plight of the synagogues with a number of conservation projects coming to fruition. Positive project examples are those at Žeižmariai in Lithuania and The Green Synagogue in Latvia as well as at Piatra Neamt, Romania.
The joint Latvian-Norwegian project at The Green Synagogue in Rezekne, Latvia is a good example of a project that primarily focuses on one historic building that will in turn inform and educate the wider community. The town of Rezekne and indeed the region it is in has many wooden buildings but owners and local craftsmen lack the skills to conserve these. The Green Synagogue conservation project is the focus of a wider initiative to promote conservation skills in the region with the synagogue becoming a best practice example. International collaboration projects such as this could be the future of the conservation of these buildings.
Engagement with the local community and the highlighting of the joint cultural heritage aspects of these important buildings and the benefits to be had from conserving them could also facilitate the inception of more conservation projects.
The Center for Jewish Art has a photographic archive of surviving wooden synagogues, with images taken in 1996 and 2004.
Other images can be found online at lithuanian-jewish special interest group (litvakSIG). These come from the archive of Balys Buracas’ (1897-1972) unique and very singular 36,000 photograph and document archive. Photo journalist and Ethnographer.
The Museum of Family History is a virtual, internet-only multimedia museum aimed at those who are interested in modern Jewish history. It currently has an exhibition entitled Lost Treasures: The Wooden Synagogues of Eastern Europe. The exhibits consists of the linocuts of Bill Farran.
Gilles Vuillard, a Lithuania based French artist who has depicted them since2009. Paintings have been displayed several times in parliament and Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum.